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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk

St Mary, Tittleshall


Tittleshall east window and Coke mausoleum

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St Mary, Tittleshall

Tittleshall is a small, comfortable village in the patchwork of fields and copses to the south of Fakenham. This was sheep country, and to an extent it still is. Tittleshall's church is fairly typical of the area, long and low and largely the work of the 14th Century. Its handsome chancel is lit by a splendid five light Decorated window, and the 18th Century red brick extension on the north side appears something of an afterthought. If you did not know, you might be surprised to learn that it was built as the last resting place of one of Norfolk's most prominent families.

You step into a nave which feels surprisingly wide under the circumstances, particularly since there are no aisles or clerestories. The open spaces and the lack of coloured glass create an effect of light on old wood and stone, a pleasing if commonplace rural interior. The font is probably contemporary with the rebuilding of the nave, the kingpost roof coming some time after.

And then you step through the pretty screen into the surprise of the chancel. The Coke family, the Earls of Leicester, were one of the most influential families of early modern England. They are usually associated with Holkham Hall, some fifteen miles to the north. But they were here first, and here some of them remain, buried in the mausoleum on the north side of the church and remembered in the chancel by one of the best collections of 17th and 18th Century memorials in Norfolk.

It was in the 1530s that Robert Coke bought the manor of Tittleshall as part of the first wave of expansion of the Holkham lands. It was a happy date in English history - for him, at least - because at this time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries land was cheap and plentiful. The estate included the former medieval village of Godwick, and the ruin of the church there survives a mile or so away to the north. The monuments here date from then up unto the building of the mausoleum at Holkham in the 1870s. Standing in the chancel and looking clockwise from the north wall around to the south there are five of them.

Coke memorials Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, 1759 Jane Coke, 1805
Kneelers for Dame Bridget Coke née Paston, 1598 Sir Edward Coke, 1634
Dame Bridget Coke née Paston, 1598 Sir Edward Coke, 1634 cherub with a flaming heart, detail of memorial to Jane Coke, 1805

In order from the south-west, the first is to Robert Coke who died in 1679. It is a striking tombchest in black and white marble, without an effigy. Pevsner attributed it to Abraham Storey. Beside it to the east is the earliest of the chancel memorials, to Bridget Coke, 1598. She was born into one of Norfolk's other prominent families, the Pastons. She kneels in an alcove with a prayerbook on a cushion. The kneeling children along the base are memorable. The third monument on this side is up in the sanctuary, and to her husband Sir Edward Coke, 1634, another work in black and white marble, this time with an effigy. He lies in his robes and ruff, his hands joined in prayer. He was Attorney-General and the Lord Chief Justice of England under James I.

On the other side of the sanctuary is the largest of the five, to Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester who died in 1759. He was the one who commissioned Holkham Hall. There are marble busts of both him and Margaret, his Countess. Finally to the west of this something quite different, a white marble memorial to Jane Coke, the wife of the famous Coke of Norfolk, Thomas William Coke. She died in 1805 and is received into heaven by an angel while a putto looks on. The memorial is the work of Joseph Nollekens and cost a fabulous three thousand guineas, about three-quarters of a million pounds in today's money.

An even earlier Coke memorial is set on the east wall on the north side of the nave. It remembers Wenefride Coke, later Bozsonne, whose first husband was the Robert Coke who bought the manor of Tittleshall. Apart from the Cokes, another name of note here was Kenelm Henry Digby, a descendant of the gunpowder plotter, who was rector here at the end of the 19th Century. A plaque on the south wall of the nave remembers three of his grandsons, two of them killed in the First World War and the other dying in India. Lionel Kenelm Digby's battlefield cross is set on the pulpit stairs on the north side of the nave.

An unusual survival is the old Tittleshall School honours board, hanging up on the west wall of the nave. It bears the names of eighteen children who passed scholarships to grammar school during the first sixty years of the twentieth century. Hauntingly, several of them also appear on the war memorial.

Simon Knott, October 2021

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looking east looking west from the chancel font and tower arch
font Wenefride Coke, 1569 three cousins, grandsons of the Hon & Rev Kenelm Henry Digby Lionel Kenelm Digby killed in action 1918


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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk